Disgraceful Tory smear to cover Town Hall decay

The Town Council need to prepare a budget for next year. The Town Clerk has prepared a first draft, and first gave it to councillors last Thursday. As the Tories would know well, that hasn’t come from R4U, and is purely an illustrative draft prepared by the Town Clerk for discussion purposes. It contains all of the items that the Town Clerk believes are needed, mainly to fund a huge maintenance backlog. No discussion has been as to why works will be done in the coming year or how they will be paid for or over what period.

The background is that financially the Conservatives have left the Town Council in a complete mess – there has been precious little maintenance, no proper reserving policy and absolutely no proper maintenance policy or programme, and necessary work, to the Town Hall in particular, has been repeatedly postponed. The Town Hall needs new lifts and boilers, the roof and other areas need extensive repairs and a number of works are necessary to make it safe. The Town Council has received a number of reports in recent years advising them of the necessary works but has repeatedly ignored them to the extent that the Town Hall is now in an unsafe condition. The reason that the scaffolding was recently erected around the Town Hall is not because building work is imminent – the Town Council is about to start a tendering process for the necessary work, which is unlikely to start for another 6 months – but because the Town Hall is unsafe and there are structural concerns about the roof and chimneys. The scaffolding is there to stop bits of the Town Hall falling on the public! The Town Council is therefore having to pay for an extra six months of scaffolding purely because the building has been left to decay. Last month it even appeared that the insurers of the Town Hall intended to withdraw insurance cover because of the state of the building.

The mess that we have inherited is compounded by the lack of reserves. Some specific reserves have been made for the cost of part of the necessary building work, but they are nowhere near enough. If the Conservatives had reserved properly for future works – and indeed had undertaken the work when it should have been done – the current expenditure would not have been necessary. The Town Council has two options – it can allow the Town Hall to continue to deteriorate until it falls down or it can repair it; only the second is a realistic option. At the same time the Town Council needs to put in place a proper maintenance regime so that regular maintenance is performed and the Town Hall – or any other public assets – aren’t allowed to get in this state again. Regular maintenace should be a lot cheaper for taxpayers than neglect and then extensive building works. This is now happening, and the Town Clerk is preparing a programme.

The same story applies to the other Town Council assets – again there has been no programme of maintenance and no proper reserving for future expense or for depreciation of assets. To take just one example, most of the Council vans need replacing in the near future, but the Council has no proper reserve for their replacement – a responsible council would have been reserving every year of the lifetimes of its assets to build up a reserve to pay for replacement assets. Instead the Council is suddenly faced with a large unfunded bill.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, not only are the reserves for specific issues woefully small, but so is the Town Council’s general reserve. At the November Council meeting, councillors were informed that a council is generally recommended to have general reserves equal to roughly half of its annual budget, or £529,000 in the case of SWTC; yet the Town Council’s general reserve stood at only £58,820. In her presentation to that meeting, the Town Clerk described the level of general reserves as “woefully inadequate”.

So the Town Council has been left in a financial mess due to years of neglect of its assets and failure to maintain proper financial reserves. As the Conservatives know full well, that is entirely their fault – they have completely failed to look after the Council’s assets and have completely failed to maintain any proper financial discipline, and their years of neglect are now having to be paid for. The Town Council has no choice but to repair the Town Hall and maintain its other assets. The amount needed to pay for all the necessary works has not been discussed, and nor has the method of raising it – as the Conservatives will be well aware.

As they will also be aware, the illustrative budget prepared by the Town Clerk and circulated at the end of last week contains no large new items of expenditure – all of the large additional items of illustrated expenditure are for essential maintenance of neglected assets, whether that is repairing the structure of the Town Hall, replacing a lift on its last legs or a boiler which should have been replaced years ago, or paying for new vans to replace the ones at the end of their life. There are many things that R4U councillors would like to be doing to improve the facilities for residents, but sadly the financial mess we’ve inherited makes it very difficult.

We as elected representatives need to manage the assets and resources of residents responsibly and not just in the short term. So maybe the people of Saffron Walden should be getting an apology from the Conservatives rather than a half-baked smear story.